18 December 1906|
|Died||12 May 1960(aged 53)|
Evelyn Mary Dunbar (18 December 1906 - 12 May 1960) was a British artist. She was partly notable for having been one of the few female artists to have been employed by the War Artists' Advisory Committee to record women's contributions to World War 2 on the United Kingdom home front. She was also a forerunner of the Green movement.
She was born on 18 December 1906 in Reading, UK, the fifth and youngest child of William and Florence (née Murgatroyd) Dunbar. Her father was Scottish, originally from Cromdale, Morayshire. In 1913 the family moved to Rochester, Kent, where William Dunbar established himself and eventually his older children in various retail businesses. Florence Dunbar, a Yorkshirewoman, a keen gardener and amateur still-life artist, was also a Christian Scientist, into which church she introduced her children. Evelyn Dunbar was to remain a Christian Scientist throughout her life.
Evelyn Dunbar was educated at Rochester Grammar School for Girls, to which she had won a Kent County Council scholarship. After a period of part-time study and a foray into both writing and illustrating children's books, in 1929 she won an Exhibition to study at the Royal College of Art. She graduated ARCA (Associate of the Royal College of Art) in 1933.
Prominent among her Royal College of Art tutors was Cyril Mahoney (1903–1968), also known as Charles. Encouraged by the Principal of the RCA, Sir William Rothenstein, Mahoney and a small group of fourth-year students including Dunbar were commissioned to decorate the assembly hall of Brockley County School for Boys, now Prendergast-Hilly Fields College, in south London with a series of murals illustrating Aesop's fables. Of the group Mahoney and Dunbar contributed most to the series, which was formally unveiled in 1936.
The Brockley murals
The Brockley School commission consisted of five arched panels, each measuring 12' x 7' (3.66m x 2.12m), plus a pediment-height panoramic frieze (8' x 39': 2.44m x 11.89m) together with a number of lunettes, spandrels and the three ceiling areas beneath the gallery. The two panels on the south side of the hall were painted by the RCA students Violet Martin and Mildred Eldridge. Mahoney painted two panels and part of the gallery ceiling, while Dunbar undertook the remaining north side panel, the frieze, a lunette, 22 of the 24 spandrels and four roundels on the central ceiling. Subjects for these smaller areas included Minerva and the Olive Tree, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, while the subject for Dunbars panel was The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk, mostly taken from Aesop.
The principal figures in The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk were modelled by Ronald, the elder of Dunbar's two brothers and her sisters Jessie and Marjorie. It was Dunbar's habit to ask members of her family to model for her, partly out of economy and partly out of convenience. At some stage during the painting of the Brockley murals Dunbar slipped on or fell from the scaffolding, resulting in an injury which left a permanent scar on her neck.
The subjects of Dunbar's murals, both the panel and the frieze, and their interpretation predict the chief preoccupations of her artistic career. The frieze, a broad landscape of the area known as Hilly Fields, in which the school figures centrally, was observed from life from the vantage point of a nearby water tower. Framed by two allegorical figures, the landscape is animated in the middle distance by dogs, people walking, pushing prams, at their allotments. In the foreground are boys in the uniform cap and blazer of the then Brockley School engaged in various activities. Dunbar's commitment is to Nature, and to man's place in it as its steward and guardian: the earth and all its bounty is there for man's taking, but the taking demands a commensurate giving through his husbandry. This sense of love, synergy and partnership, and the power of its expression through allegory, informs almost all of Dunbar's work, sometimes through direct representation, sometimes (as in The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk) through allegory. In both cases Dunbar saw the botanically accurate representation of every animal, every plant, stem, leaf and flower, as the vehicle enabling her to fulfil her part of this supposed contract.
Dunbar and Mahoney spent some three years, 1933–36, completing the Brockley murals. During this time they formed a close association, which developed into a romantic attachment. Their relationship came to an end in 1937. A collection of Dunbar's often lavishly illustrated letters to Mahoney covering the period of their close relationship, 1933-37, was donated to the Tate Gallery archive in 2009 by Mahoney's daughter, Elizabeth Bulkeley. No letters from Mahoney to Dunbar remain.
Books and illustration
In 1935 Dunbar was commissioned to provide the illustrations for The Scots Week-End and Caledonian Vade-Mecum for Host, Guest and Wayfarer (ed. Donald and Catherine Carswell, Routledge, London, 1936). The illustrations to this miscellany consist of pen and ink frontispiece, vignettes and tail pieces. This commission led to a more significant production, Gardeners' Choice (Routledge, London, 1937). This book, consisting of the history, characteristics and cultivation advice of 40 garden plants, illustrated in pen and ink, was jointly written and illustrated by Dunbar and Mahoney.
The success of Gardeners' Choice led to Dunbar being commissioned by Country Life magazine to compose their Gardener's Diary 1938, a weekly journal and appointments book animated by literary texts chosen by Dunbar and illustrated with her pen and ink drawings.
In 1941 Dunbar provided the pen-and-ink illustrations for A Book of Farmcraft (Michael Greenhill and Evelyn Dunbar: Longmans, London, 1942). This was a basic primer of husbandry for those people who had little or no knowledge or experience of farming. Its author, Michael Greenhill, was an instructor of recruits to the Women's Land Army at Sparsholt Farm Institute, near Winchester, Hampshire. Many of Dunbar's illustrations, contrasting the right way of undertaking some agricultural task with the wrong way, were made at Sparsholt, using recruits as her models.
(Unless otherwise stated, all paintings referred to are in oil on canvas)
Concurrently with the Brockley murals and her other projects Dunbar had continued to paint and to exhibit. In the spring of 1938 she contributed four paintings to an exhibition entitled Cross-section of English Painting at Wildenstein & Co., New Bond St, London. The two most significant were An English Calendar, a 6' (1.83m) square divided into 25 compartments, 12 of which feature monthly and seasonal gardening scenes reminiscent of her Gardener's Diary illustrations, now at Withersdane, Wye College, Kent; and Winter Garden (approx. 1' x 3': 30 x 91 cm: Tate Britain). Winter Garden, 1929, shows the Dunbar garden at Rochester, with the family house in the distance featuring a modest tower at the top of which Dunbar had her studio.
In late 1938 Dunbar opened The Blue Gallery, a large first-floor room above the shop run by her sisters Marjorie and Jessie at 168 High Street, Rochester. Here she displayed her own work and included some of her mother's floral still-life paintings. She invited Charles Mahoney (with whom she remained on friendly terms) and prominent contemporary artists Allan Gwynne-Jones, Barnett Freedman and Edward Bawden, to contribute their work to her first group exhibition, which opened in March 1939. The Blue Gallery did not prosper and it closed after a few months.
In April 1940 Dunbar was appointed by the War Artists' Advisory Committee, (WAAC), a department of the Ministry of Information, as an official war artist. Dunbar eventually became the only woman artist to receive successive and continuous commissions. Among the terms of her contract were the requirement to submit all her work to the board of censors before display, and to cede ownership and all rights pertaining to her work to the Crown. She was allowed to keep any paintings not retained by the WAAC. Her brief was to record civilian contributions to the war effort on the home front. Her initial subjects were the activities of the Women's Voluntary Service,(WVS), and later in the war, the Women's Land Army.
In July 1940 the Tate Gallery included Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing (approx. 2' x 3': 61 x 76 cm: IWM), in an exhibition of wartime art. This six-box or compartment painting, with each box depicting a stage in putting the protective clothing on, was included in an exhibition entitled Britain at War at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the following year. In September 1940 Dunbar submitted to the WAAC Milking Practice with Artificial Udders, (approx. 2' x 3': 61 x 76 cm: IWM). Her visits to Sparsholt Farm Institute resulted in Women's Land Army Dairy Training (1' 8" x 2' 6": 51 x 76 cm: IWM), a dairy scene in which a Land Army recruit, modelled by an actual recruit called José Loosemore, learns to roll a milk-churn on the rim of its base. By November 1940, after the first harvest which the Women's Land Army was largely responsible for bringing in, Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook (private collection) had appeared, and WVS exploitation of that summer's excellent fruit crop was recognised in A Canning Demonstration (approx. 1'8" x 2': 51 x 61 cm: IWM). Among her November 1940 submissions to the WAAC was A Knitting Party (approx. 1' 6" x 1' 8": 46 x 51 cm: IWM), painted in the drawing room of the Dunbar house in Rochester and featuring some fifteen women, including Dunbar's mother Florence (the only hatless woman, surreptitiously looking at her watch), knitting blankets or comforters in service colours.
In autumn 1940 she met, at Sparsholt Farm Institute, Roger Folley (1912–2008). Folley was a Lancashire man, an agricultural economist who had worked and lived on site at Sparsholt as Costings Officer. A Royal Auxiliary Air Force volunteer, he was called up to serve in the RAF in August 1939, receiving his commission as Flying Officer in 1941. In April 1941 Dunbar and Folley, with two other friends, spent a week rock-climbing in the Lake District. They created a joint record of this expedition in An Episode in the History of the Lake District (unpublished, private collection), with text by Folley and pen and ink illustrations by Dunbar featuring the protagonists as mice.
Following her marriage to Folley in August 1942, the focus and rhythm of Dunbar's work changed. The reduction of outdoor agricultural work in winter allowed her to complete her hospital and nursing paintings in the winter of 1940-41. Hospital Train (1' 10" x 2' 6": 56 x 76 cm: IWM) and Standing by on Train 21 (ditto) are accounts of the emergency measures taken to relieve victims of the Blitz. A year later she completed St Thomas's Hospital in Evacuation Quarters (3' x 5': 91 x 152 cm: IWM), spending some weeks in Pyrford, Surrey, where the London hospital had been evacuated. Dunbar's observation of hospital nursing activities is contained in a rectilinear mosaic of some 11 detailed vignettes.
A WAAC maintenance allowance gave her some freedom to travel and as her relationship with Folley grew, she often followed his various RAF postings. Sparsholt Farm Institute appeared only once more, as the Hampshire downland setting for her greatest war painting, A Land Girl and the Bail Bull (3' x 6': 91 x 183 cm: Tate Britain). Folley's posting to a RAF training centre near Bristol resulted in several paintings of WLA activities in Usk, in nearby Monmouthshire, among them Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire (c.9" x 9": 22.8 x 23 cm: Manchester Art Gallery).
Further training for Folley at RAF Charter Hall, Berwickshire, led Dunbar to the Scottish Borders, where she made the initial sketches for Potato Sorting, Berwick (9" x 2' 6": 30 x 75 cm: Manchester Art Gallery) and two studies of WLA off-duty life, Women's Land Army Hostel (9" x 9": 22.5 x 22.5 cm: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth) and Land Army Girls going to Bed (1' 8" x 2' 6": 51 x 76 cm: IWM). It is possible that the uniquely titled Singling Turnips (c.1' 6" x 2' 6": 46 x 76 cm: private collection) originated in Wiltshire while Folley's RAF unit was training at Colerne, near Bath.
For the later years of the war Dunbar worked mainly from her studio in Rochester. As the quantity of her output diminished, the quality of her canvases improved. Ministry of Defence authorisation to enter RAF South Cerney enabled the completion of Dunbar's only formal portrait in her WAAC work: Portrait of an Airwoman,(1944, 1' 6" x 1' 2": 44.4 x 34.3: RAF Museum, Hendon). The subject, in Women's Auxiliary Air Force uniform, with a Good Conduct chevron on her left cuff, is unknown. Also in the RAF Museum, Hendon, is Section Officer Austen, Women's Auxiliary Air Force Meteorologist ( 1944, 1' 8" x 2' 6": 50.2 x 76.2 cm), portrayed working at RAF Gravesend. By December of that year work was well advanced on A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling (3' x 4': 91 x 121 cm: Manchester Art Gallery), an imaginatively composed study of apple tree pruning and pruning equipment at the East Malling Research Station, near Rochester.
Strood, the trans-Medway suburb of Rochester, was the setting for The Queue at the Fish-Shop (2' x 6': 62 x 183 cm: IWM). Dunbar herself looks out of the painting, which was started in the spring of 1942 but not completed until 1945. The RAF officer cycling into the painting from the left is her husband Roger Folley, while her sister Jessie is the figure crossing the road. The ancient building housing the fish shop existed until the 1960s, when it was demolished to make room for a road widening scheme at a point called Angel Corner.
Dunbar's final WAAC painting, A Land Girl and the Bail Bull, was also completed, with much difficulty, in September 1945. The model for the Land Girl was her sister Jessie, who, although she modelled several times for Dunbar, is never seen full-face because of an eye disfigurement. Dunbar had sketched the dawn sky, for eventual inclusion in a painting, many years before in Kent. The 'bail' is a mobile milking shed, seen in the middle distance against the background of the Hampshire Downs.
During the war Dunbar continued painting and exhibiting privately. In the summer of 1942 she exhibited Kentish Landscape and Mrs Dunbar and the Snog at the Suffolk Street Galleries in London. The whereabouts of these paintings is currently unknown. More significantly, in 1943 she exhibited Joseph's Dreams (1' 6" x 2' 6": 46 x 76 cm: Cambridgeshire County Council), a imaginative diptych illustrating the Genesis story of Joseph dreaming that eleven stooks of corn and eleven stars, representing his eleven brothers, paid homage to him. The corn stooks are strongly reminiscent of the stooks in Dunbar's earlier WAAC painting, Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook. In both scenes Joseph is wearing his coat of many colours, and the dream-background is of fertile fields and well-cared-for plantations: Dunbar's convictions of the synergy between man and Nature are expressed once again.
The post-war period
Dunbar's WAAC salaries and allowances terminated at the end of the war. Folley was demobilised in December 1945. On demobilisation he and Dunbar moved for some 15 months into a cottage in Long Compton, Warwickshire, next door to Folley's sister, Joan Duckworth. Despite makeshift studio facilities Dunbar completed her first portrait of her husband, Roger Folley (c. 1' 3" x 1' 8": 38 x 51 cm: private collection) in time for the winter exhibition at the Royal Academy Galleries. The first of two similar paintings entitled Dorset dates from this period. An allegorical painting featuring a recumbent woman looking out to sea, it was possibly inspired by a passage from Thomas Hardy's The Trumpet-Major. It is privately owned.
In 1946 Dunbar was appointed to a part-time teaching post at the Oxford School of Art, as well as becoming a visiting teacher at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. To be nearer Oxford, where Folley had also obtained a post in the University Agricultural Economics Research Institute, they moved from Long Compton to Enstone, Oxfordshire, in the spring of 1947. The Manor House at Enstone was their home for next three years.
At Enstone Dunbar completed her second portrait of her husband, which Folley renamed The Cerebrant (2' x 1'8": 61 x 51 cm) when he presented it to Manchester Art Gallery in 2005. Dunbar's post at the Ruskin School led to a commission by Worcester College, Oxford, of The River in Eights Week, 1922 (sometimes known as Summer Eights), an unusual painting outside her regular canon, of which no other details survive as the painting was stolen in 1994. Other paintings from the period 1946-1950 include Oxford, an allegorical painting featuring a woman seated, with knees drawn up, lifting a dark blue canopy over the dreaming spires of the university cradled in her lap, and Mercatora, another allegorical study, of which Folley said '[The subject]...was really navigation...air navigation which she might have learned from me. [...] So that's probably what the spark, the germ might have been. Navigation...travel'. Joseph in the Pit (continuing her fascination with the Genesis saga), Flying Applepickers, Cottages at Long Compton, Woman with a Dog, Violas and Pansies, this last maybe an appreciative nod to Dunbar's mother Florence and her love of floral still lifes, exist as nothing more concrete than mere mentions, until further research reveals their whereabouts and appearance.
In 1950 Folley was appointed to the Department of Economics at Wye College, Kent. He and Dunbar left Enstone and took the lease of an isolated house some four miles from Wye. Here Dunbar held informal classes, maintaining her Oxford connections with an annual lecture at the Ruskin School. She now concentrated on portraiture and landscape. Returning to illustration, she contributed almost 100 pen and ink diagrams and illustrations to A Farm Dictionary (Evans Bros., London, 1953), written by another Wye College lecturer, Derek Chapman. A third, unidentified Joseph painting may come from this period, completing a trilogy. Dunbar now had the time to devote herself also to landscapes of her beloved Wealden countryside. The major canvas of her later years, Autumn and the Poet (3' x 5': 90 x 150 cm: Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery, Maidstone, Kent), developed slowly, incorporating its earliest origins in the countryside around Enstone.
By 1953 Dunbar was well enough established locally to mount her only solo exhibition, Evelyn Dunbar - Paintings and Drawings 1938-1953, at Withersdane, the administrative centre of the Wye campus. Of the 26 paintings exhibited, six were Dunbar's WAAC paintings loaned by the Imperial War Museum. Other paintings included Summer Eights, the elusive Joseph trilogy, Dorset and the lush and opulent Wye from Olantigh (1' 2" x 1' 6": 36 x 46 cm: private collection).
Alpha and Omega
In 1957 Bletchley Park Teacher Training College commissioned Dunbar to paint murals based on its motto Alpha and Omega, the first and last. In August 1957, during the College's summer vacation, Dunbar worked on scaffolding and trestles in the College, preparing areas of wall for the large-scale realisation of the designs that had been chosen from a selection Dunbar had submitted to Dora Cohen, the College Principal. Before Dunbar had advanced very far into the work she realised she had undertaken more than she could deliver. The original proposed murals were replaced with two much smaller panels. Alpha and Omega (oil on wood: both panels measuring 2' 7" x 4' 4": 81 x 132 cm, dimensions dictated by the space above the College Library doorways they were now destined to occupy) are now in the possession of Oxford Brookes University, along with the original, unused, mural designs. Alpha and Omega are heavy with allegory and allusion. While the letter Omega (the Greek capital Ω) is represented by a background yew arch trained and clipped into this shape, the letter Alpha (the Greek lower-case α) is symbolized as a rudimentary bugle held by a boy of about ten.
Dunbar made something of a speciality of children's portraits in the years 1954-60. Such portraits were of the children of colleagues, friends and family. Dunbar engaged very well with children, possibly because the marriage was childless, a state to which an early miscarriage may have contributed. As far as is known her portraits were gifts to her subjects' families, and are thus held privately. Some are unfinished, like that of the elder of her two nephews by marriage, Christopher Campbell-Howes aged 12 (14" x 12": 35 x 30 cm: private collection), in which the head is highly finished but the upper body, arms and background are merely sketched. In the last few months of her life she also painted her younger nephew by marriage, Richard Campbell-Howes (c.2' 4" x 1' 8": 70 x 50 cm: private collection), in an unusual and striking full-length pose in which the subject is sitting on a Windsor chair reading a bound volume of the satirical magazine Punch.
The last years
The last two paintings on easels in her studio at her death were Autumn and the Poet and Jacob's Dream,(c.2' 6" x 1' 8": 75 x 50 cm: private collection). Autumn and the Poet had occupied Dunbar, on and off, over the previous ten years. Like other canvases which took her a long time to complete, e.g. Winter Garden, Autumn and the Poet achieves a high level of finish. The figure of the poet, half-seated on the ground was modelled by Folley, while the fall of the drapes around the figure of Autumn was modelled by Folley's sister, with whom Dunbar enjoyed a close friendship.Autumn and the Poet was slightly smoke-damaged in a house fire in 2004, but was restored in time for the 2006 exhibition marking the centenary of Dunbar's birth.
On the evening of 12 May 1960, in the woods around Staple Farm, the Kent farmhouse in which she and Folley were then living, Dunbar suddenly collapsed and died. A post-mortem showed coronary atheroma to have been the cause of death.
At the time of her death, the storage shelves in a room adjoining the studio in Staple Farm, contained some 30-40 canvases. There were also numerous folios of drawings. Folley remarried in 1961, and in the interim Dunbar's remaining work was distributed among family and friends. Very little was, or has been, accounted for. For this reason it is sometimes supposed that Dunbar's post-war output was limited, and that her best work came from the pre-war and wartime periods. What evidence there is suggests that although her post-war work is unquantifiable, the quality of her work reached its maturity and peak. Dunbar worked continually, and there is nothing to suggest that at any time in her career did her output slacken, except for brief holiday periods, and even then it was impossible for her to leave her sketch-book behind. Her oil paintings were her prime product, but she left behind many portfolios of water colours, drawings, pastels, sketches and other secondary work, most of which disappeared shortly after her death and have not so far come to light. She rarely discarded anything.
Dunbar's obituary in The Times of 16 May 1960 concluded: 'Living a retired life in Kent, absorbed in country pursuits, Miss Dunbar did not often come before the public in mixed exhibitions, but her mural paintings and illustrations, with their peculiar authenticity of work inspired by the ruling passion, appealed strongly to those who knew it'.
Dunbar was no self-publicist and showed no great interest in the promotion of her work. Her system of signature could be inconsistent. Her earliest work she signed fully, 'Evelyn M. Dunbar' or 'Evelyn Dunbar'. This she sometimes shortened to 'E Dunbar' for some of her WAAC paintings (not all were signed), and latterly she signed herself 'ED'. Only in one circumstance did she sometimes sign herself 'EF' (i.e. Evelyn Folley): on the series of Christmas cards from 1942 to 1959, which she designed and for which Folley wrote verses. Occasionally her work was labelled by her on the back of the canvas or the frame. Sometimes it was authenticated by Folley. It has been claimed of her that she only signed what she considered finished work. It could be equally well argued that the formal self-attribution that signature implies was not important to her, especially with work produced for her own pleasure or that of close friends.
In 1961 a memorial window in stained glass, designed by her friend and colleague John Ward, and now in the Old Hall, Wye College, was dedicated to Dunbar. The design incorporates Dunbar's paintings of flowers. It is inscribed 'In memory of Evelyn Dunbar. Painter and friend of the College 1906-1960.'
A Land Girl and the Bail Bull featured in the 2005 A Picture of Britain exhibition at Tate Britain. An exhibition of Dunbar's work was held at the St Barbe Museum and Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire, in 2006. Several of her WAAC commissions featured in the Imperial War Museum Women War Artists exhibition in 2011.
Dr Gill Clarke, Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country (Sansom and Co. Ltd., Bristol 2006).
A comprehensive catalogue of Evelyn Dunbar's work exists at www.evelyn-dunbar.blogspot.com
Harriet Booth: Evelyn Dunbar and the English Tradition (Post Graduate Diploma on Art Gallery and Museum Studies: University of Manchester, 1994)
Christopher Campbell-Howes: Evelyn Dunbar 1906-1960: A Memoir http://evelyndunbar.tumblr.com
The Times obituary, May 16, 1960
Roger Folley: Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative (unpublished, 2007)
- Tate. "Evelyn Dunbar 1906-1960 Artist biography". Tate. Retrieved 2 September 2013.
- Dr Gill Clarke, Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country (Sansom and Co. Ltd., Bristol 2006)
- Tate. "Catalogue entry for Winter Garden c.1929-37". Tate. Retrieved 2 September 2013.
- Arifa Akbar (8 April 2011). "Women at war: The female British artists who were written out of history". The Independent. Retrieved 2 September 2013.
- Tate. "Catalogue entry for A Land Girl and the Bail Bull". Tate. Retrieved 2 September 2013.
- Rachel Cooke (19 June 2005). "Land of hope and glory". The Observer. Retrieved 2 September 2013.
- Steven Marshall (9 September 2006). "Evelyn Dunbar: recording the role of women during the war". Socalist Worker. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
- Kathleen Palmer (2011). Women War Artists. Tate Publishing/Imperial War Museum. ISBN 978-1-85437-989-4.